It's 2 am and I should be sleeping, but instead I'm writing this post. News outlets are in a tizzy about Charlie Sheen revealing his HIV-positive status, and comments like "He had it coming" and "Serves hlim right," have started to flow. It's like decades of education aimed at informing and removing stigma never happened. Like the bravery of so many—an entire generation of activists, fighters and badasses—was for naught.
First a couple of facts: Who can contract HIV?
Anyone who is sexually active, uses intravenous drugs, children born to an HIV-positive mother, and in rare instances, people that have undergone a blood transfusion or organ transplant (source).
Second: HIV is not a gay disease.
It's also not a slut's disease. It's not God's way of thinning out the heard. It's not a punishment.
Third: Being HIV-positive is no longer a death sentence.
Antiretroviral (ART) treatment has evolved exponentially. Being HIV-positive is not an automatic pathway to AIDS, and with the proper regimen, poz individuals can live long, happy and healthy lives (source).
Fourth: Knowing your status is key.
In the U.S. there are over a million people living with HIV. One in 8 aren't aware they are infected, and approximately 1 in 4 new cases are in youths ages 13-24 (source). Find a health center near you and get tested.
Growing up different.
Being a child in the 80s, I heard about this mystery disease at a very young age. This "gay cancer" that had appeared out of nowhere and was killing all the right people. As an impressionable Catholic schoolboy who knew he was different, I was mortified. Certainly, that was going to be me a few years down the road. If being gay wasn't going to be enough to shame my entire family, certainly this would do the trick.
Many years of self-loathing followed, and I remember one instance at age 12, when the praying hadn't "cured" me, and I decided to round up every single pill I could find in the house. Certainly that would be less shameful.
Later in life, I also remember coming home after the first time I kissed a guy, drinking straight from the milk jug, and then immediately dumping the remaining contents down the drain. I didn't want to infect my parents with something I just knew I instantly had.
Like many, I had convinced myself that HIV was not something that could ever happen to me. "I have friends that sleep around way more than me," I'd tell myself, as if that were any consolation. I'd avoid the conversation with sexual partners, and hope for the best. If I was asked when my last test was I'd lie. I'd been lied to before, I was sure, so the two would cancel each other out. I'd hear about past partners who were now HIV-positive. Usually not from them.
It wasn't until recently, last September, that I armed myself with whatever bravery I could muster and stepped inside an Albuquerque Planned Parenthood, asking to be tested. It'd been a very long time since my last test. Too long. I'd recently met a guy I was head over heels for. Another close friend in my circle had also become directly affected by HIV. I did it for both of them.
As I saw my entire sexual history flash before my eyes, I filled out a couple of forms and gazed at a dated posters in the PP lobby. One featured a squirrel and was emblazoned with the message, "STDs: Think you're immune? You're nuts."
Sitting in the corner of a waiting room, I had come up with a scheme. After she pricked my finger, I told the nurse to come back and say, "I have good news!" That was to be the code that everything was A-OK. I was told I had to wait 10 minutes for my results. In the interim, I had asked for information on PrEP, and set a timer on my phone. Those were the longest few minutes of my life. "If I'm positive, at least I'm taking the right first-step," I told myself, getting ready for the inevitable. I felt every single second go by.
Eight minutes passed, then 10 and 12. When minute 16 rolled by, I knew it couldn't be good. There would be no secret code and beaming smile when she walked through the door. I was sure of it. In fact, I thought, she's probably going over a special crisis protocol and is about to drop the bomb on me. I was ready for it.
The boss, a nurse practitioner, walked through the door with a surprised look in her face, carrying some paperwork. "I've never seen this," she said and I almost fainted in my seat. "Oh, no," she continued, looking at my Casper-like face, "you're negative." She was referring to Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which I'd also asked about. Neither of the protocols were yet available in New Mexico, but she was willing to write me a script that closely cloned PEP, if I wanted it that bad. After answering a short questionnaire, it was determined I wasn't a candidate for it.
Awkward laughs were exchanged. I'd gotten the result I was so aiming for; the one I had again gotten on my knees and prayed for. This didn't however make me any better than anyone else. It made me a lucky bastard. One that is aware of the bullets he's dodged. One that is grateful for those that have paved the way for—had my results been different—leading a happy and long life.
I'm not an activist. I'm not an expert in the matter, and I don't have all the answers. It's late, and at this point I'm not sure how my tone is coming across. I just felt the need to share my story and hopefully contribute in whatever minuscule matter to the dialogue.
That's my story. What's yours?